Silent Knight, Holy Knight: St. Joseph in Sacred Scripture

It has become a modern tradition that the story of Christmas be acted out each year by children in countless Christmas pageants. These heartwarming pageants all have the same stock characters, from an innocent girl wrapped in a blue veil holding a baby to three wise men bearing gifts. The story weaves in and out a series of visits made by angels, shepherds, and wise men, and the action is often punctuated by a children’s choir singing carols. One character, however, remains static . . .  Joseph. Having no lines or gifts, Joseph simply stands in the background and watches the other characters greet Mary and Child. It is not unusual for the young actor playing Joseph to look a bit bored by the end of the performance. This has caused me to wonder whether, in the real story of Christmas, there is anything to learn from Joseph, or is he simply an extra who helps fill out the stage of salvation history?

If we search the New Testament for Joseph, we at first find very little to quench our thirst for knowledge about him. For he is mentioned only in passing by John (1:45, 6:42) and he appears only in the opening chapters of Luke and Matthew. Yet in the midst of this apparent desert, there is a wellspring, an oasis even, of spiritual insight for us, if we would but draw out Scripture’s depths.

Drinking thoughtfully at the well of St. Matthew’s Gospel, the attentive reader finds that the few words Matthew gives us speak volumes (cf. Mt 11:15), for they echo back to the story of another Joseph, the patriarch Jacob’s son. Many readers of Matthew have noticed the strong similarities between St. Joseph and the Joseph of Genesis. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Quamquam Pluries (see “Transformation in Christ,” pp. 30-31), says that this similarity has been “confirmed by the opinion held by a large number of the Fathers, to which the sacred liturgy gives its sanction, that the Joseph of ancient times, son of the patriarch Jacob, was the type of St. Joseph, and the former by his glory prefigured the greatness of the future guardian of the Holy Family.”

St. Matthew’s narrative resonates with the ancient story of Joseph in various ways. To begin with, both St. Joseph and his father Jacob share the same names with their Old Testament counterparts. Pope Leo XIII notes that St. Joseph’s name itself is “ . . . a point the significance of which has never been denied.” We first hear the names of St. Joseph and his father in St. Matthew’s genealogy where he writes, “… Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born. . . . ” By describing Joseph as the son of Jacob, Matthew evokes in the reader’s mind the story of another Jacob, “who loved Joseph more than any other of his children” (Gen. 37:3). At this early point in the Gospel narrative, the reader may wonder whether these allusions to the patriarch Joseph are deliberate or not, but little doubt remains when an angel appears to Joseph in a dream.

Matthew’s opening narrative is structured with a series of revelatory dreams so as to present St. Joseph to us as a dreamer. An angel first appears to Joseph when he is concerned about taking Mary as his wife (Mt 1:20-21), and again to warn Joseph of Herod’s plan to kill the child (Mt. 2:13), and twice more when he calls the Holy Family back to Israel after Herod’s death (Mt 2:19-20). Each of these dreams draws forth from our memory the Old Testament stories of Jacob’s beloved son both dreaming and interpreting dreams. Genesis recounts how the Joseph of old dreams of the sheaves of his brothers bowing down to his sheaf (Gen. 37:5-7), and of how the sun, moon, and eleven stars, representing his father, mother, and brothers, bow down to him (Gen 37:9-10). These dreams foreshadow Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt where he becomes second in authority only to Pharaoh, governing the kingdom where his family eventually seeks refuge. This surprising revelation of the authority of the Old Testament Joseph prefigures the authority of the New Testament Joseph, who has under his authority in the Holy Family Mary, the Queen of Heaven, and Jesus, the Son of God.

The connection between the two dreaming Josephs is confirmed by St. Joseph’s second dream. In that dream, St. Joseph is warned about Herod’s desire to kill the child and is told to flee to Egypt for safety. With the strong association between Egypt and the patriarch Joseph, it is clear that Matthew is narrating the story of St. Joseph as a typological recounting of the former. Just as the first Joseph went into Egypt because of his brothers’ envy, likewise the second Joseph goes to Egypt because of the envy of Herod. The Joseph of old interpreted Pharaoh’s dream that warned about the impeding famine, while the second Joseph has a dream that warns of Herod’s wicked plans. Both Josephs use the revelation given through the dreams to take measures that save the lives of many. According to Genesis, “All the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth” (Gen 41:57). In the New Testament, Jesus clearly identifies Himself as the “Bread of Life” (Jn 6:48) and is, in fact, born in Bethlehem, which in Hebrew literally means “house of bread.” Thus St. Joseph, by providing for and protecting Jesus, supplied the world with the living bread in the midst of this world’s spiritual famine. St. Bernard notes this typological connection between the two: The first laid in stores of wheat, for himself and for all the people of the land of Egypt (Gen 41:47-57); to the second was entrusted the care of the living Bread from Heaven, for himself and for the whole world.”(1)

The echoes to the Old Testament Joseph are strengthened by the mention of Rachel, who was the patriarch Joseph’s mother. Matthew tells us that Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem was prophetically foretold by Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they were no more” (Mt 2:18). In Jeremiah, these words describe the sorrowful event when many Israelites were rounded up by the Babylonians and taken in chains to Babylon (Jer 40:1). Rachel is depicted as weeping because those from Ramah were from the tribe of her son, Benjamin (Josh 18:25). Since Rachel’s tomb was located at Bethlehem, Matthew reapplies Jeremiah’s moving description of Rachel weeping for those at Ramah to the picture of her weeping with the mothers of Bethlehem. Both Matthew and Jeremiah take the image of Rachel weeping for her children from the Genesis narrative. When Joseph’s brothers report to Jacob, Rachel’s husband, that Joseph was killed by a wild beast, we are told that Jacob “refused to be consoled” (Gen 37:35). Jeremiah describes Rachel’s sorrow in the same terms that Genesis describes Jacob’s sorrow. Jacob wept for his son Joseph, believing him to be dead when he actually was sold as a slave to Egypt, just as Jeremiah pictures Rachel weeping for those who were taken into Babylonian captivity, but who would later return to Bethlehem (Ezra 2:21). Likewise the mothers of the slaughtered children in Bethlehem wept for their children, not yet realizing that they would be resurrected with the glory of being the first martyrs for Christ.

St. Matthew has narrated the story of Joseph so as to evoke many striking similarities between him and his namesake. By alluding to certain parallels, Matthew opens the door for readers to make further comparisons beyond those to which he alludes. In literary studies, the method of evoking further echoes between two texts than are explicitly alluded to is called metalepsis. Thus, “when a literary echo links the texts in which it occurs to an earlier text, the figurative effect of the echo can lie in the unstated or suppressed points of resonance between the two texts…. [The] allusive echo functions to suggest to the reader that text B [Mt. 1-2] should be understood in light of a broad interplay with text A [Gen. 37-50], encompassing aspects of A beyond those explicitly echoed.”(2)

Many readers, using this method, have followed the trajectory set by Matthew by drawing further comparisons between the two Josephs, particularly in the areas of purity, presence of God, and patronage.

Chaste Spouse of the Virgin

The patriarch Joseph was known for his heroic purity, in which many see a prefigurement of St. Joseph’s virginal purity. Thus St. Bernard observes, “The first, keeping faith with his master, refused to lie with his master’s lady (Gen 39:12); the second, respecting the maidenhood of his Lady, the mother of his Lord, was faithful to his own chastity.”(3) St. Bernard is referring to the account in Genesis where Potipher’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, who heroically flees. In speaking of St. Joseph’s purity, St. Bernard exemplifies the Church’s Tradition, which extols St. Joseph’s chastity. In purity and holiness, St.   Joseph guards and protects the virginity of Mary, and by so doing shouts to all the earth the marvel of the Annunciation and Incarnation. For this reason, Christian art and iconography commonly depict Joseph reclining or even sleeping at a distance from Mary and the Christ Child, thus highlighting the purity of his relationship with Mary, and showing that God the Father is the true father of Jesus. Such noble chastity is so significant to God’s plan of salvation that it is prefigured by the patriarch Joseph.

Guardian of Emmanuel

God’s abiding presence is similarly shared by both Josephs. The Joseph of old, through his virtue, found favor with God, and thus we are often told that “God was with him” (Gen 39:2, 3, 21, 23; 41:38) in the midst of his trials in Egypt. It is not accidental that Holy Writ describes God as being present with Joseph during the most difficult times of his life. Thus God’s Word to St. Paul rings true for Joseph: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Undoubtedly, the second Joseph also found favor with God, “being a just man” (Mt. 1:19), and therefore was chosen to be the guardian of the child called Emmanuel, “God with us”! God Himself, in Jesus Christ, dwelt intimately with Joseph and Mary in the daily life of the Holy Family.

Patron of the Universal Church

Pope Leo XIII developed a further similarity between the two to help illustrate why St. Joseph is the patron saint of the entire Church:

Thus it is that we may prefigure the new in the old patriarch. And as the first caused the prosperity of his master’s domestic interests and at the same time rendered great services to the whole kingdom, so the second, destined to be the guardian of the Christian religion, would be regarded as the protector and defender of the Church, which is truly the house of the Lord and the kingdom of God on earth.

Leo XIII sees in the patriarch Joseph’s rule in Egypt, and in St. Joseph’s paternal authority in the Holy Family, the prefigurement of St. Joseph’s patronage of the universal Church.

St. Matthew may not have been the first to see the typological foreshadowing of St.   Joseph. It is likely that Joseph, after the angel announced the mystery of the Incarnation to him in a dream, reflected on the dreams of an earlier Joseph. As Joseph walked through the perilous wilderness on the way to Egypt, leading the Holy Family, he must have thought of this forefathers who had crossed the same desert regions in search of refuge in Egypt (e.g., Gen 12:10; 46:4). He may have recalled that God had provided once before for an Israelite named Joseph in Egypt, with the hope that He would do so again. In their sojourn through the wilderness, Joseph and Mary had with them the true heavenly manna and the Rock from which springs life-giving water. Joseph, reflecting on God’s Word as he carried the Word made Flesh in his arms, trusted that God would once again lead His Son out of Egypt in a new Exodus.

St. Matthew, as a good scribe, recorded the following words of Jesus: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasures what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52). Matthew has certainly brought out treasures from the old story of Joseph to enrich our reading of the new Joseph. With a few words, Matthew teaches us much about this holy guardian of the Holy Family. St. Teresa of Avila is one reader of Matthew who has treasured this rich account of St. Joseph. She often visited these passages of Matthew, drawing great enrichment from the deep well of St. Joseph’s example and intercession. Her example would inspire us to greater devotion to the humble carpenter of Nazareth, whose patronage the Lord uses in building up His Kingdom:

I wish I could persuade everybody to be devoted to this glorious saint, for long experience has taught me what blessing he can obtain from God for us…. His aid has brought me more good than I could ever hope for from him. I do not remember once having asked anything of him that was not granted. I am full of wonder at the great graces God has bestowed on me, and the perils to body and soul from which He has freed me, at the intercession of this blessed saint. God seems to have given other saints power to help us in particular circumstances, but I know from experience this glorious St. Joseph helps in each and every need. Our Lord would have us understand that, since on earth He was subject to this man who was called His father, whom as His guardian He had to obey, so now in Heaven He still does all that Joseph asks.(4)


(1)   St. Bernard’s The Betrothed of Mary, as quoted in Rondet, S.J., Henri, Saint Joseph (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1956), p. 61.

(2)   Hays, Richard B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (London: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 20.

(3)   Rondet, supra, p. 61.

(4)   The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., Vol. I, pp. 53-55.